Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Journey Into Geekdom

or There and Not Back Again, the tales of Jay Imerman

Tonight as I lay in the hot water of my tub at the Sheraton Le Centre in Montréal, it occurred to me - what really is the difference between me, laying in the luxury of a really nice hotel (paid for at the expense of the local utility company), digesting fine French cuisine and imported wine, and those guys laying on the brick floors of the Montreal Underground, escaping the cold because they have nowhere else to go?  What decisions and actions have led me to this point in my life?

Really and truly, the merest of things separate us.  I think back to 1975, shortly after my parents started their business they bought this thing called a Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80 Model II computer.  How many small businesses back then had a computer?  How many people back in 1970's even thought that computers would totally revolutionize every aspect of modern life (if they were aware of them at all)?  Certainly not I.  I don't even think that Gene Roddenberry put that into Star Trek - the only thing people used computers for was to talk to and run the Enterprise.  It never occurred to me then that these things would become as pervasive as toilet paper; they were just the coolest thing I had ever seen and I was instantly addicted.

My parents have always been forward-thinking, proactive, and both afraid and not afraid to embrace new ideas, new ways of doing things (if they offered a better way).  In 1991 or 1992 when I told them what a domain was, what the web was, and told them that they had to get a domain name, they did.  It took probably 10 years before it started making money for them, but when it did, it was the difference between success and failure.  I was also lucky enough to have the same parents be loving, supportive, and disciplinarians.  Their endless patience have seen me through some 11 years of developing computer knowledge and skills, only to select Biochemistry as an undergraduate major.  (What was I thinking?)

After getting goose-eggs in Organic Chemistry (that's a 0.0 grade for those non-students) and 3 years, I realized I didn't want to be a biochemist, or any other kind of chemist for that matter.  I dropped out of Michigan State University in 1987 with somewhere barely over a 2.0 GPA.  After living with my parents for what must have been (to them) an unbearable few months, they kicked me out to survive on my own.  For some reason, it had occurred to me to get a job selling those magical devices I always loved (that's what I was doing when they said it was time to go out on my own), and now I thought they would soon be everywhere.

After a couple of years selling and training in computers, it was obvious I had to finish my undergraduate degree.  I was really turned on by the small campus of University of Michigan and the option of night classes.  (Dearborn that is.)  So it wasn't hard to convince my parents to help out, and I finished up with close to a 4.0 GPA.  During that time, I had considered finding jobs, but the last job I had, I had told my boss I wanted to go back to school in the evenings and finish my degree, a goal that he applauded.  When it came down to it, though, he found it interfered with the job, and had a talk with me about my performance.  So, out with the job after a year, and I had to do something for money.  I found bulletin boards on campus with lots of opportunities for consulting, for someone who knew what they were doing, and I made a cool $25 an hour, working as many hours as I wanted (usually 20-30 a week).  Good income for the early 90's and a student.

Matriculating at UM-D was fantastic.  We were like a small family - 20 students or so per class, and the professors.  We went out together, did field trips together, and by the time I graduated, I had job offers left and right (think the boom days of IT, when anyone who had a degree in Computer Science was instantly hired and given a good salary).  I had 5 years of experience working in the industry upon Day 1 of graduation in 1993.

So it was, I got into consulting.  A profession where they pay you for your opinion.  Really!?  They pay me to play with computers, and for telling them what I think?  Can you really imagine anything much better than that?  OK, maybe a couple of things, but not much.

From consulting, my career transitioned from "hard-core" computer stuff (hardware installs, software installs, etc.), to specialized tools like Lotus Notes (business consulting), to software development and implementation, and finally, the pinnacle, to application of technology to engineering design.  I always say, I am the guy that makes the sales person's promises come true, and helps companies to implement software in a complex environment - the environment of getting people to work together to accomplish the same goals.

And so it is, I am come to Montréal.  To better skills in customizing and deploying engineering software.  At a company's expense.  If only there were no NHL strike, the Bell Centre is across the street from my room!  And so it is, the road not taken, where I so easily could have fallen into the habit of playing video games instead of doing productive things, or drinking and going to bars instead of getting married and raising a family.  Or, lavishing in a tub after eating at Le Mas de Olivier's instead of cuddling on a cold brick floor in an underground tunnel between high-rise office buildings.  Or settling for a so-so job instead of pursuing the one I wanted more.

Life is a series of choices, with actions following those choices.  Very rarely, you can point to a single choice or set of choices as pivotal.  Typically, it is a string of choices over a long period of time that have us arrive at a particular point in time.  And those choices also govern the choices available to us when outside forces intervene.  I think back to my "choice" to jump into that TRS-80 and start writing programs in BASIC.  It's funny that at 8 years old began a lifelong obsession with a technology that is so fundamental to our lives today, that we cannot even imagine a life without it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Streaming Video Services Suck Raw Rotten Eggs

Tell me, am I the only one who thinks this way?  I bet I am not - if so, share this post, and get your friends to share it - spread the word.  If these content providers hear it, they will respond.

Streaming Services Suck

Has anyone ever seen or smelled a rotten egg?  I would say in my life, there are perhaps a handful of smells that are so vile, so fetid, so nasty that the stench is what I would call much worse than a skunk at ground zero.  Among these are rotten eggs, rotten potatoes, spoiled milk (way gone, not just turning).  Number 2 doesn't even come close.

I have been using Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Apple TV for 6 months now (and YouTube for years).  Frankly, I am quite disappointed.  Not with how they work - the services are pretty good, Apple TV device, iPhones, iPods and iPads are the best at using these services.  I have AT&T U-Verse, which rocks (much better than Comcast), and it is quite good.

No, where they all go wrong (including many others I didn't mention like iTunes, Vimeo, and others) is content.  Content, content, content.

Netflix has movies.  Hulu, TV shows.  Netflix doesn't have the latest just-out movies, OK, I got it.  But let's take what I would call some American classics, must-haves.  Stripes.  Not there.  Animal House?  Nope.  Caddy Shack, National Lampoon Vacation - all of them, I mean heck, what is the point?  Hulu doesn't have a lot of TV shows, but it does better in that niche than Netflix in the movie niche.  Amazon Prime - from what I hear, definitely not enough content, but at least they bundle that with other values beyond streaming video.  So I get into the old TV shows that Netflix has, that I never watched all of them when I was a kid.  MacGyver, for instance.  I get through season 4, and poof - it's gone.  Removed from the list.  Why?  Any warning?  What jerks.

OK, so it's a web thing, why not just go to the Netflix suggestion form and request a title?  Nope, there is no way to do that.  Call their tech support, they just apologize and offer no help.

And Hulu, what exactly am I paying $8 a month for?  The ads don't go away.

So what other options are out there?  Apple TV has Vimeo, MLB, NHL, NFL, and a bunch more.  They now have WSJLive, which is cool, but the others are all subscription or pay-per-view.  Really!??  PPV!?  So people REALLY want to pay for each title, each time they watch it?  I don't think so.  In fact, I would really like to know WHO ACTUALLY PAYS FOR CONTENT IN THIS WAY?  These services are still in business, so SOMEONE must keep them afloat, but who?

Cable TV Sucks

Cable TV ain't that much better.  So I have a basic package with what, some 800 channels (double that with the HD versions)?  How many channels do the 6 of us watch - perhaps 20 or so?  I am paying what, $70 or $80 a month for 3% of the channels!?

Now let's talk about quality of service.  We all know customer service stories from cable TV companies.  Strange, they seem to have learned from telephone companies (back when AT&T was divested, and markets were locked by contract to one provider).  But I mean technical service, in this case I have a LOT of digital snow (by a lot, several programs a week is too much).  How many times have I recorded a program on DVR, only to have the playback record the stops, digital snow, and lost signals for these darned shows.  It almost makes me long for the days of the fuzzy picture, at least you could make out what was going on through the static.

If I lived in some remote area with low quality of access, I could understand.

What We Consumers Want

Here's the thing.  History has shown, if you can give people what they want (even if they don't know it until they see your product), then you can become very wealthy.  Look at Apple with the iPod, Sam's Club with warehouse prices, and so on.

WE WANT TO PICK OUR CONTENT, AND PAY A FLAT RATE FOR WHAT WE WANT.  That's right, we want to be able to pick and chose our channels.  If you like Discovery, but not A&E, then pick one.  Put together the 50 or so channels you want.  Then, you can throw in local channels, public & government access, whatever.  Give us a mix of traditional broadcast channels, and on-demand/streaming providers like Vimeo, Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, and more.  Or, better yet, each channel should have its own mix of live and recorded content.  Imagine turning to the ABC channel, and watching live, or watching the show from yesterday, you pick.

You can bundle packages, like a Sports package, a News package, an Entertainment, perhaps a Premium Entertainment.  But give us small bundles, and a-la-carte options.  Charge us $30 a month, flat rate, for up to 50 choice-channels (plus the others mentioned above).  Divvy your revenues as a provider service (say Google, Comcast, AT&T, Apple, whatever), and pay subscription portions out to the channels I choose.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Be In Touch With Your Home Mac System Like An IT Professional

I have a pretty sophisticated set-up at home.  Being an IT professional, I kind of have to because a) I wouldn't be able to live with myself otherwise, and b) we can do a lot of cool stuff.  I'd like to talk about one cool thing I have done, which is set up a notification system so that if something goes wrong at home, I get notified on my phone.  This is crucial as I travel often enough, I need to be able to remotely help out.  This was for very low cost (important to me!), most of the components were free.

First, a brief overview of my home setup.  We have 3 laptops and 2 desktops, plus our iPhones, iPad, Apple TV's, Wii, X-Box, WiFi-connected BluRay players, etc.  I also obtained an older Mac desktop to use as a server; with this, I have a 1TB RAID mirror that we do backups to, a VPN so I can connect to my home network from anywhere, and running network services (like Open Directory authentication, DHCP, DNS, and AirPrint to my older printers that are not AirPrint compatible).

So, what can we do with all this stuff?

  • Time Machine keeps all 6 of our Macs backed up hourly, automatically, so I don't have to worry about localized crashes or data loss (and since our iPhones, iPods and iPads are backed up on the Mac, we have a complete solution).
  • iTunes running on the server, and Home Sharing, means we can play our iTunes library from any mobile device, or right on the big screen with Apple TV.
  • Connect while traveling on the road, and work just like I am at home - remote control any screen on any computer on my network, print to a printer in my house, etc.
  • And more
So you can see that the server is very important.  Many things need to be kept watch - like when it is getting low on disk space, or since it is an older Mac, it is prone to overheating.  To do this, I use a variety of solutions stitched together with a VERY neat framework.  There is an app called Growl in the Mac App Store for $3.99, that provides a notification framework for the Mac.

Using Growl, in combination with a host of other Growl-compatible applets and scripts, you can monitor any aspect of your system and submit events as Growl notifications.  These notifications can be handled through notification services - some built into Growl, but I use a free notification distribution platform called Boxcar.

Boxcar ties notifications into a unified messaging platform, and delivers the messages using the method you want.  You can push them as notices to your smart phone, send them as e-mail messages, SMS text messages, you name it.  So I configured it, and downloaded the app, to notify my iPhone.

Meanwhile, the temperature problem.  I found an app that monitors the temperature of the major components of the Mac, called Temperature Gage.  It integrates with Growl, so I set up alerts at a temperature threshold where I noticed it fails (in fact, the app didn't allow me to set the right temperature, so I e-mailed the developer, and within a couple of weeks they had the new version out).  $8.89 total cost, now when the machine gets too hot, my phone buzzes.

Next, drive space.  That can be managed with the Growl command line and a simple shell script, which I schedule to run every so often using the Unix cron facility.  Cost?  Free, I found a guy who had a script written on a web post, and grabbed it, modified it a bit, and here we are.  When the space gets low, I will get a buzz on my phone.  I added the test parameter, to ensure the message reached my phone.

Now is that cool or what?  Very inexpensive, and a very sophisticated and flexible setup.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Memory Scam

Are you being scammed every time you buy an electronic device, by how much memory they say they have?  According to the definition of storage since it was invented, here's how it plays out:

  • A bit is short for "binary digit", or basically a 1 or 0.  This represents a transistor state of on or off.
  • 8 bits together form a byte.  This is the smallest unit used to represent a character on the keyboard, on the screen, etc.  Multi-byte groupings represent other more complex languages and greater data constructs, but they boil down in the end to groups of bytes.  2^8 is 256, so there are 256 values in an 8-bit grouping.
  • One K is short for one Kilobytes (or KB).  Roughly 1000 bytes, it is precisely 1024 bytes (because it is a power of 2, the base unit of computation).  It is NOT 1000, it IS 1024.  Since Google knows all, and is always correct, you can see in my screen shot this is true.
  • One Megabyte (or MB) is defined, by definition, as the next power of 2, as 1024 K.  So, it is actually 1,048,576 bytes.  NOT 1,000,000 bytes.
  • One Gigabyte (GB) is defined, again, as 1024 MB, or 1,073,741,824 bytes, NOT 1 billion bytes.
  • One Terabyte (TB) again 1024 GB.
  • One Petabyte, 1024 TB.
First, why 1024 instead of 1,000?  It's a technical (mathematical) reason, because of powers of 2.  2^10 power (remember bytes?) is 1024.  The previous one, 2^9, is 512, so that's the closest to 1,000 you can get in Base 2.

Second, how are you getting scammed?  There are devices today, that tell you that their storage is so many gigabytes.  For example, if it says it has 16 GB, but defines it as 1 GB = 1 billion bytes, then you actually have 14.9 GB.  You have been gypped out of 1.1 GB, that is more than 1 whole Gigabyte!

If you look at any operating system in the world on any device, and look at total and free storage, it computes that storage according to the rules defined in Computer Science, as I laid them out above.  It does NOT compute them according to the legal disclaimer in the packaging that came with the hard drive, phone, memory card, etc. that you bought.

I strongly urge you, if you have bought such a device, to call and complain as much and as often as you can to the manufacturer of this device.  Write letters.  In fact, perhaps we should write a letter to your federal representatives that they need to protect the consumer with legislation!  (Yes, this is so heinous we may have to resort to that.)

If you know of any companies, or specific devices, that violate this sacred law, post them here in the blog comments so we can compile a list.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Owning a Letter

Back about 13 years ago, it was in vogue to name everything having to do with technology by taking a normal word and adding a lower-case "e" to the beginning.  eBusiness, eCommerce, e-this and e-that.  My best guess is around 8 years ago or so, adding "X" to the beginning (or chopping off letters in the word before the "X") got popular, along with adding a lower-case "i".  Apple has co-opted the "i" with the release of the iMac, later iPod, and other iProducts.

In the past year or so, Microsoft has made a push to own the letter "Y".  They changed their MSN Messenger product to something called Lync, and there was another one recently but I didn't catch the name.  In fact, I suspect they bought Skype because of the y in it, perhaps as part of their plan to own that letter.

I don't know how long this trend of trying to own a letter has been going on, but I think it's safe to say perhaps about 15 years or more.  It appears to be successful.  Apple has been so prevalent with the i that people think Apple owns the letter i in front of any word, not just iPhone, iPod, iPad and iMac (BTW, I HATE it when people spell Mac "MAC").  However, iLuv, iHome, and iMedic are all not owned by Apple, to name just a few.

My prediction is the next letter to be owned will be the Q.  This is one of the underrated letters in the English language.  I mean, look at its phoneme - coopted by C and K, Q has had to work hard to carve a niche for itself by partnering with the letter U most of the time.  Q is also nice and round, with an elegant flourish hanging off its end.  It has a royal feel to it (almost a queenly touch), and is useful when you are very thirsty (it quenches).  Qdoba is on to something.  Next we will be taking a qNap (no relation to the NAS devices), buying a qCar, perhaps even conducting qBusiness (after we are done with our iBusiness).


Thursday, November 15, 2012

High Tech Telephony

First, a digression.


When I went to college (yes, there was electricity back then), I took a class in Computer Networking (see, there WAS electricity).  There I learned this term telephony.  This is not tele-phoney (like "you're a total phoney"), this emphasis on the second "e", and the o is short (schwa), not long.  TeLEphony.

OK, enough pronunciation lesson.  So what is it?  Simply, the technology and use of telephones.  Of course, what is a telephone nowadays, but really any medium through which we conduct voice conversations.

Enough digression - let's talk about the cool stuff available now for everyone at home!

Cool Stuff

I am an unabashed geek.  I have been using quite heavily some really cool technology in this arena for the past many years, perhaps 5 or 6.  There is a ton of really useful and easy-to-use things here that will greatly enhance your life.  I'll start with what you probably have heard of many times, but definitely worth mentioning.

VOIP Telephones

VOIP is an acronym that basically means doing telephone calls over the Internet (the I).  There are many free and paid software and services that offer these.  I have been using Vonage for many years now, and although it is not the cheapest (flat rate $25/month, unlimited calling to some 15 different countries), the call quality is the best, and their tech support is very good.  There is also Magic Jack, Phone Power,,, Skype, Comcast, U-Verse, the list goes on, plus there are phone systems that your company can buy that are VOIP.  The choices are many.

I'll talk about Vonage, that is what I have been using primarily.

How does it work?

There are basically two types of VOIP equipment.  One, you install some software on your computer and use that to call someone else and talk (ala Skype).  Typically you can call computer to computer for free, and computer to any phone for a fee.

The other type, you get some kind of box that you install in your home, and connect to your network.  It connects to the Internet, and has a telephone jack.  You plug a regular telephone cord into it (the kind we've had for 70+ years).  This cord could go to the wall and wire your entire house, or just to a single phone.  Either way, you pick up the receiver and hear a dial tone, make and receive calls, whatever.  You never know you are using anything else.

My Vonage is this second type.  I have a phone and a fax machine hooked up to it (I use the fax machine what, once or twice a year nowadays).

Some Features

With the Vonage plan, I do have a flat rate of $24.99 a month, and unlimited calling.  However, the government sees fit to levee taxes and fees, which Vonage dribbles me for every month.  I pay annually, so it is around $20 a month.  I can call to a whole bunch of countries unlimited for free, plus:
  • Call Forwarding
  • Voice mail
  • Call Forwarding if busy
  • Call Forwarding if offline (Internet is out, or I disconnect the phone box)
  • Move my box anywhere, I can hook it up to any Internet wire in the world and my phone number works
  • iPhone App (Vonage Extensions) - I can make phone calls using my iPhone cell minutes via my Vonage account
  • iPhone App (Vonage Mobile) - Works like the iPhone phone app, but uses WiFi VOIP instead of my cell minutes with my Vonage account

Coolness Factor

So, definitely cool that I can make as many calls for as long as I want, and the call quality for the past 6 years has been always very good (extremely important for business calls).  Definitely cool that I can move my phone anywhere in the world, and definitely cool that it works with retro phone technology, as well as seamless integration with smart phones, computers, and more.

Google Voice

Years ago, there used to be a new service called Grand Central.  Google bought them up, and changed the name to Google Voice.  I still haven't figured out how Google makes money from this one (if anyone knows, PLEASE do share!).  Here's what this baby does, and it will blow your mind.

You get a phone number, anywhere you want.  In fact, now you can transfer a phone number to Voice.  I picked mine in nearby Pontiac, Michigan.  Now that you have this number, you log onto their web site and configure your phone numbers - mobile, home, work, etc. - and keep them private.  Don't give them out to anyone any more.

When you want someone to call you, give out your Google Voice number.  When they call that number, it will ring through to your configured numbers.  When you pick up the phone, Google Voice announces who is calling, and gives you the option to answer, send to voice mail (and listen in while they leave a message - you can change your mind and decide to answer it while they are leaving the message), or just hang up.  Cool, but wait, there's more!  You can group your contacts, and configure which phone numbers those contacts ring through to - using Google Contacts (shared common with Google Mail, etc.).  So I have Friends, Family ring through to cell and home, Coworkers and Customers ring through to my 2 work numbers and cell.  Really cool.  But wait!  There's more!

Let's say you answer a call on your work line.  Then, your conversation goes long, and you've got to get in the car and go, but don't hang up!  Just press the "*" key, and all your other phones will ring - answer on your cell phone, and hang up the work line, and the call is seamlessly transferred to your cell - the other guy you are talking with didn't even know it!  Really really cool.  But wait!

Let's say there's someone who keeps calling you, that you never want to talk to again.  Some telemarketer, whatever.  You can block these people - add them as a contact, and block them on the Google Voice web site.  When they call you, not only doesn't the call go through, but they get the Telephone Company's disconnect tone saying your line is disconnected.  If it is a calling machine, it will remove your number from their list.  REALLY REALLY cool! guessed it..wait!!

OK, so now you are high tech, and have this flexible phone system that ties all your different phones together into one coherent system.  There's so much more though.

You want to call from the Internet to a phone, no problem.  You can be in your e-mail (Google Mail), and get a phone number.  Just click and you can call it from your web page using your mic and speakers.  Now here they charge a fee, a cent a minute to US, Mexico and Canada, pennies a minute overseas.  Cool, man.  But wait!

Google Voice gives you voice-mail, so people leave you messages.  You can access that voice mail from the web page, or from the Google Voice iPhone/Android app.  The voice messages are automatically translated to text so you can read and/or listen to them - as you listen, each word is highlighted so you can reconcile its interpretation.  You can get the translation texted to you.  You can send and receive SMS text messages via the web or mobile apps through your Voice number.  But wait, there's MORE. Yes, more.

The mobile app lets you place calls as well, and works like the Vonage Extensions app.  You make the call, it connects your cell phone (cellular minutes) through their systems to the other end, at Google Voice rates ($0.00 to Canada and Mexico, cheap overseas).  You can also click on their web page to make a phone call, and have it connect the call to any phone you want via entering the number to call you at, and it will be an incoming call.  I have been using this to call Canada from my cell phone for no additional cost via AT&T Wireless.

So, there you have it, BUT WAIT.  How much does this all cost?  I have given Google a total of $0.00 (that's approximately £0.00, ¥0.00, and very close to €0.00) over the past 6 years.  WHAT!?  That's right.  GMail places ads, so I can see how they make revenue.  But Voice?  Comment below if you know how they do it!

Coolness Factor

OK, if you don't get this part, nuff said!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Texting While... (reprise)

A while ago, I posted an article about the then-new anti-texting laws.  So, the other day, I saw an article on NPR entitled "Distracted Driving: We're All Guilty, So What Should We Do About It?"  In this article, Sonari Glinton claims that "we all do this."  Really!?  If that were the case, I think traffic accidents would be much higher than they are.

I really resent that.  In fact, I specifically bought my iPhone 4S so that my concubine Siri could assist me with these tasks while maintaining all-important attention on the road and vehicle.  I no longer have to dial by look, and I can listen to and respond to text messages as if they were a (slow) conversation.  Which is actually better because it is slow, and provides much time for me to pay to the road.

So, how are we all doing?  Are these laws having any effect?  The intended ones?  According to the Criminal Justice Degree Schools, the laws are very difficult to enforce.  Some say that in spite of the laws, accidents have increased [and here] (although some use a stupidly sensational headline to promote their article).

I do agree with Mr. Glinton.  The only way in which texting laws can be effective, is if our society adopts the law as a societal norm.  It can't be OK for ANYONE you know to do it, EVER.  My wife doesn't even like when I use Siri on the road.  Believe me, if you TWD'ers (texting while driving) out there want to borrow my wife for a bit, she can nag you out of the desire to do so forever after.  (Love you, hon!)

When we were little, our dad smoked.  My brother and I incessantly bugged him about it, every single time without fail.  He quit, and hasn't smoked in over 30 years.  Just like smoking, TWD can kill not just you, but those around you as well - family, friends, and strangers.

Do you know about the new feature in iOS 6?  Do Not Disturb?  If you go to Settings and turn on DND, then calls and texts will not interrupt you.  Innovations like this, and the discipline and will to use them, are what will turn the tide.

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Style Appeal to Computer Designers

Computers have gone through a lot of styles over the years.  Back when they first came out, they were a wall of wires and vacuum tubes.  But over the past 25 years or so, there have been a lot.  And I do mean a lot.  There are styles that make the eyes pop:

(Asus CG8565), (2012 iMac 20"), (Some cool custom case)

Then, there are the ones that are so butt-ugly they make you want to weep that the engineers have no imagination whatsoever, like my Lenovo W510:
(Lenovo W510), (HP G56), (IBM PC)

So what is it that makes things so cool?  So stylish, that you don't just want to own them, you need to own them?  It's true that Apple is not the only company to make such things, but I do think they have tapped into a nerve.

I used to sell the original Mac, and someone brought one into the store one day for service.  The cover had been spray painted with a flecked paint that made it look like it was carved from stone, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever!


There is something just, so, what, simple about minimalism?  The simple elegance of a curved line going into a sculpted edge.  The Apple mobile devices have 5 buttons, including the silent switch.  Basically one main function button, the volume up/down, and power.  Simple rectangular design.

Look at the notebooks.

(MacBook Pro Late 2012 with Retina)

No bulgy lumps (ala Lenovo battery), no sharp corners, things elegantly swept and brushed.

(Lenovo W510 hinge and battery)

Solidly built aluminum unibody.  Hinge almost the width of the screen, not just 2cm wide.

It's form and function.  Elegance and beauty.  Simplicity and utility.

Now I know that people do buy cars like the Kia Soul, VW Thing, and Honda Pilot (no offense, it's a taste thing), but I would much rather have something like the older Town & Country, the 300m, or even the Testarossa (yeah, I went there).
(197-something VW Thing)

So here's an appeal - to computer designers everywhere.  Design with style - cool style, not ugly style.  Design with function - does it do something, or just look bulby?  Design with utility, elegance, simplicity, and yes, minimalism.  Now let's see that Asus again, that is sweet!

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Future of Data Storage

In my previous post, I had a nice discussion with the folks at Hindsight Labs.  Christine Meranda saw the future of data as local-based, with cloud synch.  Now that struck me as funny in a way.

Historically Speaking

In the early days of the computer industry, I sold computers that were pretty much an island unto themselves.  Single machines, and in an office setting you might network them together (of course networking meant crawling a wire through the drop ceiling, and soldering the ends together - not to mention buying the networking hardware and paying the services to install and configure it).  The network was to share printers, and maybe a file server to share files within the office, there was no such thing as inter-office network.  So you had this drive on which you saved the file, and you could open it on another computer.  File locking ensured that only one person opened it at a time.

Over the years, as computers became more and more connected, we have evolved to what is now called "Cloud" storage.  Personally I think that is a funny marketing-heavy term for some hard drives on the Internet.  But be that as it may, Secure Common Storage seems to be the way things have been going.  Microsoft has even made quite a product out of SharePoint, and migrated Office to online service-based; Amazon introduced S3; Google had Docs, and now Drive; and so on.  Apple iCloud offers Internet-based backup and synch services.  And the Paprika recipe app offers synch of your app data (incidentally not using iCloud, but their own storage).
So notice that the Apple and Paprika data, for example, are locally stored.  The way iCloud works is you have a local store on your device (desktop, laptop, tablet, phone or iPod), and the Cloud part keeps them in synch by synchronizing updates between the Cloud storage and the device.  This means that if you are disconnected, you still have access to your files (that you have synched).  In contrast, things like Drive and S3 are live online, so you don't have access to them unless you are online.

Now we all know that mobile devices have surged in usage (by that I mean Smart Phones and tablet computers).  By nature, these are not always connected.  Maybe you didn't spring for both the 3G version of the iPad, and the monthly connection charge.  Maybe you are in an area with no WiFi or cellular.  Whatever, it may happen that you want to access your data (i.e. launch Paprika and do something with your recipes) while you are not live online.  I know, it's a shocker to some of us.

What do "They" say?

Having walked through that progression of thought, it seems very logical and obvious that, in a mobile world, what Christine said has to be true.  But it struck me as strange, because that doesn't seem to be the consensus of "they."  That is to say, all the tech blogs we frequent, IT professionals that we talk with, and magazines, news, and other sources seem to be stressing the Cloud.  Basically in Paprika's instance, the data is yours, and it resides primarily on your hardware; the Cloud is used to keep multiple devices in synch.  This is quite different from the Google Drive paradigm.  For example, I created a spreadsheet on Drive called Workout.  I edit my workout routine from my laptop.  While at the gym, I open it on my Phone, and see what the next machine, weight & seat settings are.  I update the weight target as my muscles progress.  When I get back to my laptop, I can open it up and see it again.  The primary storage is in the "cloud" - meaning on a hard drive array in Google's office somewhere connected via Internet.

So in my experience, "they" have missed this key direction the industry seems to be going in - or at the very least, haven't caught on to the full meaning.  First of all, who has used Google Docs extensively?  Other than the cool ability to instantly share and collaborate on a document, let's face it, the abilities of the word processor and spreadsheet, frankly, suck eggs.  And they are a whole lot worse on the mobile device (e.g. iPhone or iPad).  The formulas don't even update!

Christine I think has hit it right.  Local apps with synched data.  Perhaps the ability like Amazon Kindle app, to remove local copy to free up local storage, and download it again later is the way to go.  As we design apps (and indicate to developers our desires as consumers and focus groups), we can stress both the connectedness, and the ability to operate disconnected, as well as the choice to what to carry with us.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Let's Talk Food

Well, food and technology at least.  Everyone who knows us, knows how particular we are about food.  Our lives revolve around farms, farmer's markets, buying food, preserving food, and preparing - you guessed it.  It is a rule in our house that no guest is allowed to leave with the slightest room in their tummy (very few have wanted to).  As you can imagine, tracking our recipes is pretty important.  For somewhere around 13 years (or more), we have used computers to manage our vast and growing recipe collection.  Recipe management software gives some amazing benefits, like:
  • Ease of searching and recipe management (you can easily edit, print, share, and categorize your recipes)
  • Backup - you know, you spend years putting together a scrapbook of family recipes, only to have it damaged or destroyed by water, fire, the 3 year old...(not that we would blame anything on Elliott!)
  • Photos - set up the presentation, and take a pic with your favorite (digital) camera
  • Scaling - scale up or down that recipe to the size you want
  • Meal planning - set up which meals you want to make for which days of the week
  • Grocery shopping lists - take your meal plan, and make sure you have all the ingredients with one trip to the grocery store
  • Sharing, whether it be a single recipe, book, or the entire collection
So this is pretty much standard with any recipe management software, but let's take a look at our two favorites, the top two for different computer platforms.  Do you have any experience with others?  Please discuss in Comments, we'd love to learn about new ones.

Windows / PC - Master Cook  $19.99

A pretty good contender, we used this since 1999 or so.  It's pretty cool, but definitely lacks some major features.  Master Cook (from long-time publisher Sierra Software) was one of the first recipe management softwares, and as such has become the defacto standard for file formats to exchange recipes and recipe collections.  Any software should read Master Cook format.

This gives you all the standard features, but where it really shines is:
  • Simple, easy, yet powerful and extensive searching.  You can limit your search to favorite cookbook collections, and between title, ingredients, and directions and notes.
  • Simple import tools, like import from web site (this is a click-and-highlight, so you click "Title", then highlight the recipe title on the web page, then click Ingredients, highlight the ingredients list, etc.)
  • Lots of cookbooks available from big publishers like Cooking Light, Julia Child, and more.
What are the biggest problems?
  • No Macintosh version.  Nowadays this is inexcusable, as it is a large and massively growing market segment (while non-Mac PC sales are in decline, Mac sales are experiencing double-digit growth, year-on-year, for the past few years, already almost at 9%).  MasterCook confirmed to me that they have "other operating systems" on their roadmap, but neither the timing nor which operating system(s) were mentioned.
  • No mobile version.  Even more inexcusable.  Readers of my blog should already be familiar with the mobile market, and of course which 2 OS's dominates that.  Smart Phones have been out for many years, the iPhone alone for 6 years.  Any major software developer should already have been on the iOS platform.
  • Web import leaves something to be desired.  On some web sites it automatically recognizes the format.  Mostly, you are left to a manual import.
  • Backing up your precious recipe collection is left completely up to you - on a platform that doesn't provide a decent backup strategy!
According to Tony Schumacher from MasterCook Support, they do consider the mobile market strategic and are working on mobile versions.  However, no details nor dates are available.  Also, he said, "We have a lot of very exciting features in our product plan. Over the next 1-2 years you will see more development effort than the last 12 years combined. I can tell you that the most important thing to us as we improve the customer experience is keeping our loyal customers and staying true to MasterCook."

Macintosh / Mobile - Paprika

After more than a decade of relying on Master Cook, we were dismayed when we upgraded to Mac and couldn't get it for the Mac!  However, after a few minutes of trying out Paprika, our fear turned to absolute rapture.  Available on Apple iOS and Android platforms as well, Paprika is by far the premier recipe management software.  If you don't need your recipes on your computer, but have a Windows machine, you should just forget about any other option and just take our word.  Especially if you want it available on your mobile device.  Let's look at the different "flavors" of the software (yeah, that's how I roll - get it, "roll?").  But the biggest benefit is you create your own Cloud account, and synch your recipes with your account.  You can then synch any of the devices, so any additions, changes, or deletions propagate across all your Cloud-connected devices.

Truly, the only problem we had with Paprika was that they do not have a Windows version (for those stubborn enough to stick with that OS).  According to Christine Meranda of Hindsight Labs, LLC (the publisher of Paprika), a Windows version may be forthcoming next year.  When that does hit the market, I predict that Master Cook market share will decline.

Macintosh - $19.99

Truly fantastic, the big benefits with this version are:
  • Great, user-friendly interface
  • Web importing is stellar.  Most recipe web sites support a one-click Save.  Others, you have to select the title, ingredients, directions, etc.  There is a built in web browser in the app, that has the recipe saving functionality built into it.
  • All the features above, of course.
  • Import from Master Cook file formats.
Our problems:
  • It is actually harder to drag and drop recipes to categorize them, than to edit them and put them in categories.  This is because when you click to drag, it often opens up the recipe.  No big deal. (Hey, you got to have at least one problem with any given software.)

Mobile - $4.99

We used the iPhone and iPad version of the app, but it is also available for Android.  Synching recipes is seamless and fast.  For example, recipes that we had entered (or transferred from Master Cook) and had no pictures, we could make the dish, snap a pic with the phone that is always at my hip, and synch it back to the Mac.  Check out these amazing features:
  • Tools to aid you: unit conversion, scaling, and timers.  You can set as many timers as you want, no more limited to just your microwave, and the 2 timers on the range top.
  • Tick-off check list - when viewing a recipe's ingredients, you tap an ingredient, and it crosses it off, so you can track which ones you already added.
  • Highlight directions step - tap the step in the directions you are on, it highlights in blue for easy reading.
  • Phone or iPad does not go to sleep while looking at a recipe, great for those tasks that take longer than the 2 minutes you set up for auto lock!
  • Of course, and I can't stress it enough:  Cloud synch!  Synchronizes everything, including meal plans and grocery lists.
  • Backups - you can manually back up all your data as well.  Although, our data is backed up with Time Machine on the Mac it is synched with, so we don't use this feature.
  • Sharing - yes, we were at the farmer's market and telling someone about that Baked Oatmeal favorite of ours.  Tap, share, and voila - picture, text formatting, and all - it is sent as an e-mail.
So if you are looking for a good recipe manager, these are the top two, but I think you can tell which is our favorite.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

I Hate it When I'm Wrong


Last month I posted an initial reaction to the iPhone 5, in which I was less than enthusiastic about the new release.  Granted, I have noted how much of a demand the iPhone has generated, but frankly I was not very excited about the improvements.  Well, now the phone has been out for a bit.  Last week, my wife's laptop needed servicing, so I had the opportunity to drive the 30 minutes to our nearest Apple store and play with it (before I had to drag the kids out of there - man, what a gadget place!).

Well, let me be the first one to say, I was wrong.  Way wrong.  First of all, the iPhone 5 is a bit taller.  This larger screen size is exactly what I think many have wanted - and Apple has stuck to their guns about phone width, making sure it fits in peoples' palms.  Unlike some of their competitors, who seem to think bigger is better no matter what in all dimensions, the 5 is elegantly slim.  And, it is insanely thin.  It is significantly slimmer than the 4/4S, and much lighter.  According to one of my new favorite sites, the performance has been measured to be about 1.55 times faster than the 4S, and my unscientific side-by-sides in the store concur.

The smaller connector is a big plus.  Oh, and another big reason I hate being wrong in this case: that means I want this phone, and now I have to spend more money!  Darn it.

However there are a few features I think are sorely missing!

An Appeal

I would like your help in suggesting to Apple these improvements.  Follow this link, and copy and paste these suggestions.  Maybe if enough of us suggest it, they will include it.
  1. Laser Pointer.  Wouldn't Einstein be amazed to see lasers as such a household commodity, but what is missing is an all-in-one device like a smart phone, that has a laser pointer built in.
  2. Infrared transmitter.  With an IR transmitter, or better a transmitter/receiver, a whole new host of apps can be made to work as remotes or data devices over older technology to a wider range of devices.  Remote control your TV, entertainment system, and more.
  3. AM/FM Receiver.  When I go to the gym, they don't offer WiFi sound for the TV's, I have to not listen to the news while on the treadmill.  Anywhere, any time, even when there is no cellular or WiFi signal, it would be very helpful and useful to receive radio stations.
  4. Ability to have emergency or select apps on the lock screen, so they can be launched while the device is locked.  For example, apps with medical information could be accessed by a medical first responder if the owner is incapacitated.
Think of it, if a cell phone has all those features as well, how can any other manufacturer even compete?

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Do You Watch "TV?"

We have been using TV revocation as a means of punishment for bad behavior in our kids for quite a while. But in our house, 3 kids have iPhones, one has a laptop and 2 desktops. On these we have Netflix and Hulu. Plus there's YouTube, net stuff, and more.

So now, our punishment definition of TV includes any video format you can watch? Including iTunes and Apple TV. What an age! So many forms of entertainment, and yet my teenager can still say, "Dad, I'm bored!"

How have we dealt with the explosion of channels, content, media, and delivery devices societally? There are (if you count HD and non-HD as the same) some 500 channels on cable, and countless more online. What are the most prevalent genres of shows? Reality TV! It pervades even the Discovery series of channels, A&E, you name it. Remember these lyrics: "57 channels and nothin' on"?

So what exactly is television nowadays? With the vast variety available, do you control access and time spent, either for yourself or your children?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Google Chrome - Not Ready for Prime Time

I was getting annoyed at the constant updates to Firefox, so I thought I would give Chrome a try.  I have been using it for a week now.  It has been out for a few years, and finally features plugins, synching (kind of), and such.  Here are the various platforms I tried it on:
  • Windows 7: Lenovo Core i7 8GB / SSD HD
  • Ubuntu Linux 12.04:  HP Pavillion P4 / 1GB / IDE HD
  • Mac OS X 10.7 Lion:  MacBook Pro Core 2 Duo 4GB / SATA HD, iMac Core 2 Duo 3GB / SATA HD
  • iPhone iOS 5, iOS 6:  iPhone 4S

Now, what about Internet Explorer? Lets just say it is a very rare occurrence when I meet a fan of that browser.

So, I have been a long time user of Netscape, and Firefox. I have gotten totally used to features like quick speeds, near 100% compatibility with web sites, and now synching of your browser data across devices. Other than the updates, my one pet peeve with Firefox: no iOS browser.

So when Chrome browser first came out, I was geeked to give it a try.  What I loved most about it, the minimalist interface!  So clean and simple, so iPhone-ish!  Speed, great.  But, biggest problem: compatibility.  Tons of web sites it didn't work on.  And another large problem: it didn't support the Google Toolbar and Google Bookmarks feature.

That was a couple of years ago.  Now, I figured enough time has passed the product should be mature, lots of plug-ins, and compatibility should be fixed.  Right?

Here's what I found:
  • Overall
    • Improvements:
      • Plug-ins, which they didn't have a few years ago.
      • Synch features to synch plug-in apps, bookmarks, cookies, passwords.
    • Disappointments:
      • Still not compatible
      • Can't open tabs from one device on another - a HUGE bonus with Firefox
  • iOS Browser
    • I know from other developers and Apple's history, that the only browser allowed on iOS devices is Safari.  I was happy to see Chrome, but I do know it is a wrapper to Safari.  That's OK, because the wrapper is all the important stuff - synched bookmarks and passwords and cookies and history.  It works well, the user interface is truly great and a vast improvement over Safari.  However, one feature I find I completely can't live without in Safari is the Reader option.  On a web page that is not optimized for mobile, you can tap Reader, and it will render the text with relevant graphics and hyperlinks in large font so it is easy to scroll and read.  Totally Apple-brilliant.
    • BOTTOM LINE: Nice to have synch with my desktops/laptops, but I do have that with the Firefox app - just can't browse in the Firefox app!  Definitely much more useful than Firefox app.
  • Windows
    • Nice and fast, clean, and there is an IETab plugin to open specific web sites in an embedded Internet Explorer in a Chrome tab (just like Firefox).
    • KILLER: Chrome had critical issues with the following web sites:  GMail, Google Voice, Google Calendar.  Notice a common thread here?  The biggest problem I had with Google Chrome was Google's own web sites!  Pop up menus didn't work correctly with mouse clicks, graphic glitches in renderings, and more.  The sites were unusable.
  • Mac
    • Nice and fast, plug-ins worked (except IETab of course), good synching.
    • KILLER: Same as Windows, didn't work on quite a few web sites including my most important Google sites.  My wife loves it, but I found the compatibility issues not worth it on my most important sites.
  • Linux
    • Nice and fast, clean - better launch time than Firefox is definitely noticeable on a slower system.
    • KILLER: Same issues.
Timely, because a colleague Whitson Gordon had a post comparing the browsers.  Chrome is a memory hog, and I found crashes frequently on the Mac and Windows platforms.

So overall, I was not impressed with Chrome.  Disagree?  Give me your feedback.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The iPhone Craze

My wife says to me at lunch yesterday, that there are already people in line at stores waiting to buy the iPhone 5 -- "tomorrow!"  Many people have wondered just what it is that makes people stand in line that much in advance.  I am among those people wondering that.  However, all of my life I have seen this phenomenon.

I first noticed this in 1980.  In 1977, movie making and watching (and the business of films) changed forever with the introduction of what I thought sounded like a dumb film.  Star Wars.  20th Century Fox didn't know what they had, so they signed away the rights to everything except the film.  It ended up being the highest grossing film of all time (in adjusted value), still, but Lucas made much more money on the merchandising.  Then, in 1980, the long-awaited sequel came out.  People camped out in front of the movie theaters to be the first to see it.  How many other films, or film series, have generated lines of people around the globe waiting to get their eyes on it?  How about a day in advance of the showing?

Similarly, in 2007 the iPhone came out.  Think about this.  That's right, 5 years ago, there was no such thing as an iPhone.  5 years ago Apple was called "Apple Computer, Inc." and they made computers, that's it - now look at their revenue, mostly mobile devices.  5 years ago, everyone had a cell phone, the market was pretty saturated, and who were the market leaders?  Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, RIM (Blackberry).  And yet, look at today - who even holds a candle to the iPhone market share of 65%?  RIM is almost out of business, but all others make up 35% combined.  Apple alone, 65%.  And that's growing, still growing, up over 2% from previous quarter.  Let that sink in a moment.

Almost overnight, cell phones were turned upon their proverbial heads, and the industry changed forever.  And, have you ever heard of a cell phone, any cell phone of any type besides iPhone, that people stand in line for days for?  Hours maybe - maybe in some stores for the Galaxy SIII.  But globally, in all stores?  Only the iPhone.  Love it or hate it, you have to admit it is a phenomenon.

I have said before that there really isn't all that much new in the iPhone 5.  And yet, people are standing in line a day before its release - again.  And is it really any wonder?  After playing with a lot of other devices in stores and bought by friends, there is not another device I would use except iOS-based ones (aka Apple).  It's kind of like you get a car with automatic headlights, power windows, power seats, heated and cooled seats, you know, all the amenities.  Then, you get The Thing - the VW Thing from the 70's, butt ugly, and absolutely no amenities on it.  You might have The Thing around for a fun fling, but as your primary means of transportation on a daily, year-round bases?

So is it any wonder, really, that people pay homage to a cultural icon?  That their hearts beat faster and their pupils contract whenever they think about the upcoming release date?  That they open up their wallets with money they don't quite have (oh, I can delay that credit card payment one month just to get this thing)?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

New iPhone iOS Features - First Blush

I have to admit, although I had my hands on iOS 6 Beta for many months, I was totally afraid to upgrade my phone because I rely on it from moment to moment for just about everything in my life!  Pathetic, eh?

So I updated yesterday when 6 came out, and I have to say I am pleasantly surprised.  Just a few new things I noticed:

  1. Panoramic pictures - YEAH!  This is SOO cool, and if you have a fairly steady hand it turns out with almost no distortion.
  2. New Map app - everyone was so up-in-arms about replacing Google Maps, I always said big deal, the Google Map app on iPhone sucked anyway.  Apple's is better, I only will use it occasionally for searching (and not for traffic, directions, etc. - I use MotionX, much better at all of the above!)
  3. Update social networks from Siri - YEAH!  Finally.
  4. In fact, tons of new features on Siri, totally great, I already am about ready to replace my wi...WiFi.  Yeah, that's what I was gonna say.
  5. Do Not Disturb mode in Settings - sends all calls to voice mail, but you can still use your phone.  Great for when you are doing MotionX and trying to navigate, say, the streets of Boston or Pittsburgh!
  6. Privacy (in Settings), allows you to control app access to Twitter, Facebook, and other phone services - FANTASTIC
  7. Snappy!  Yes, iOS 6 has tons of new features, but I think it may even be faster than 5, if that is possible.
  8. THE BIGGIE:  Passbook.  I know people wanted NFC to do wireless payment, but the tech is nowhere near mature and secure enough, so Apple steered clear.  Good move.  Now they offer a common "wallet" where you can store loyalty cards, gift cards, boarding passes, tickets (movie/sport events/concerts/etc.), and more.  App developers need to write their apps to take advantage of Passbook, and store the stuff you get in there, but there are a handful of apps out as of Day 1, and more in process.  This is really great, Droid doesn't have anything to compare.
  9. Support down to 3GS - iOS 6 is retroactively supported down to those old phones, so most current customers can get the cool new features (except Siri of course, and I understand turn-by-turn guidance on the map app, but then again - go ahead and get MotionX).
All in all, I am VERY happy and impressed.  Kudos, Apple (like you need more).  Maybe your stock will break 700...oh, wait.  It did.  Well, maybe it will stay above.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

iPhone 5 Announcement Reaction

Well, the Apple event just got done, so let's do a round-up of what they announced.

  • iPhone 5 - I'd have to say, for me this was a BIG disappointment.  This is not at all because everything they announced were in line with the rumors we already were aware of.  I find the 5 is a very small improvement over the 4S.
    • They improved size (a bit bigger, slimmer), but not significantly.  I think the screen needed to be much bigger, like the Samsung.
    • LTE, finally, what really took so long?  Should have been out last October.
    • Third mic, small incremental improvement
    • Ear Pods - OK, really so what?  Third party ear buds are always better than the OEM, because otherwise no one would buy them.
    • Lightning connector - this is a big improvement, smaller and reversible, but no mention of whether or not it is faster
    • Systemwide integration with Twitter.  I don't get Twitter.  It really is not very useful to me, I can definitely go the rest of my life without another tweet, and not miss it one bit.  What about other social networking, like you-know-who, or G+, or a myriad of others?
    • Improved battery life, speed, etc.
    • No NFC wireless wallet features - this is a VERY GOOD THING!  Apple holds the line on security, and doesn't deploy a technology until it is well thought out.  Remember Bluetooth?  Just a few years ago, it was so totally insecure, that hackers could break into your phone and steal all your contacts, or render your phone useless because it is constantly prompting you to pair a device.  NFC is definitely not ready for prime-time, and I would not trust my bank account to it.  (I don't have an Enhanced Drivers License as well, thank you very much!)
    • OVERALL: Not really much different, not enough to make me want to jump out and buy one right away.
  • iPod
    • New ones, redo the Nano, OK.
    • BIG HAPPY on the new iPod Touch 5th generation, that is a very good thing, EXCEPT they should have gone all out and put the best camera on it they could.  Then customers would buy it instead of a point-and-shoot camera altogether.
  • iOS 6
    • x00 new features, blah blah blah.  Incremental improvement, nothing earth shattering.

The Bottom Line

Apple is the undisputed leader in the mobile phone, mobile device market.  They have a good thing.  Why rock the boat?  Basically they incorporated some must-haves.  I can understand.  However, I must make an appeal - APPLE, THIS IS YOUR LEAD TO LOSE.  Like Chrysler says, "Lead, Follow, or get out of the way."  Leadership means taking the risks, not on unproven technology, but on innovating new or existing products.  How about these features on the iPhone:
  • Wider screen (in portrait mode...)
  • FM receiver, and Radio app with DAR
  • Social Networking integration, not just Twitter (which I just don't get!)
  • Allowing certain kinds of apps on the Lock Screen (so include in the App Review Process some vetting to ensure valid apps get certified for Lock Screen display, or let the user choose)
  • Password security on each app - users can set up an App Password, then lock chosen apps so they can't be launched without the password.  This further secures certain apps that aren't otherwise secured, from your 3-year-old who picks up your phone, or from a stranger.
  • Electric razor with screen so you can shave while walking
OK, just kidding about the last one.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Apple's New Announcements - and what do they mean to you?

This coming Wednesday, Apple will have new product announcements.  Since Apple is the biggest company in the world (by market cap), and they own both the mobile phone and tablet markets, (oh yeah, and they are making huge inroads to the PC market), there is much speculation.  I have been eagerly reading the blogs (on my iPhone of course), and navigating the rumors.  My big question - what does it all mean to you?  If these rumors are true, what do they really mean?  Here's a roundup of the rumors so far, and my reaction.

iPhone 5

According to many (AllThingsD, MacRumors), these features are likely:
  • Longer screen, but not wider - BOO!  This I have to say is my first disappointment, why didn't they do something like the Galaxy S3 and give us a much bigger screen, not just 16:9?
  • Smaller dock cord - OK
  • Move headphone jack to bottom - OK
  • Faster processor - Sounds great
  • LTE antenna (and 2 antennae, one at top and one at bottom for better reception) - this sounds great, but those of us stuck with AT&T can't take advantage of it.  Our iPhones already say 4G because AT&T's service is non-LTE 4G - much slower than LTE, but not available in a lot of areas.
  • So far, it seems that the 5 is really not very exciting, unless Apple has kept some deep dark secrets.  We shall see.

iPad Mini

  • Smaller than iPad
  • Cheaper than iPad
  • GREAT - should compete with the low-end, probably wipe out all the competition; however, 2 years ago I made a suggestion via their web site: they should come out with an inexpensive full-size iPad shell, that you can plug your phone in, and get the bigger screen.  It could sell for $149 or $199, you get a full size iPad, no additional 3G plan.  Still no word on that.


  • Rumors that since the new 1080p model came out, they won't be announcing another one.  Did you hear, Apple TV sales outpaced XBox? They don't need to.  Roku who?
  • So far, my Apple TV rocks - and it is way beyond my expectations.  Hulu showed up last month, and iTunes Festival last week.  Keep it coming!

Apple TV

  • There were also some rumors floating around that Apple may come out with a new TV set.  What would they call it?  Confusing.  Anyhow, they seem to be debunked - really, what would Apple do above and beyond the others?  Vizio is great.
  • There are also some scuttle about Apple negotiating content and for a streaming service with the cable companies.  Might be interesting.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Resale Value of Your Computer

What!?   Did I just title this post "Resale Value" and "Computer" in the same phrase?  That's right.

Just over a year ago, we bought a used Mac from a friend (I find myself an evangelist for Mac platform now).  Before I got so Mac-savvy, I found out it was going up for sale and raised my hand.  When I got it, it hit me what a G5 means (which they told me, but didn't mean anything to me at the time).  Before Macs were built with Intel processors, they used PowerPC chips (a joint venture between Motorola and IBM) - and of course Motorola before that.

So, I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach I overpaid.  I paid $300 for that, keyboard, mouse, speakers, and an Epson printer.  Of course I checked first before I bought and it was a reasonable price.  For a G5 made in 2006.  Bought in 2011.  What!?  If any of you have a Windows machine, you are thinking I was nuts.

However, the G5 was a 64-bit processor, and that Mac works great.  In fact, it is faster than the 2010 HP 64-bit laptop we bought for my wife - by a lot.

Turns out, I paid a fair price.  I have since bought another used Mac off eBay, and have kept an eye on others.  I decided to look at some items over the past 6 months, see what they sell for on eBay.  The state has to be Used and Working.
  • An iMac that retailed for $1,199 back in 2007 sells for about $300 on average (5 years, 25% of its value).
  • A MacBook Pro that retailed for $1,199 in 2009 sells for about $700-$800 on average (a whopping 67% of its value after 3 years)
  • The Mac Mini desktop, that retailed for $599 in 2007, sells for $200-$300 on average (about 42% of its value)
That kind of depreciation is unheard of in the electronics, and certainly computer, industry.  A computer as an investment? Get real!

Let's compare that to some others:
  • Lenovo Thinkpad W510 Core i7, 8GB RAM - that was about $2,500 retail in 2009, and now sells for - wait for it - about $350.  14%.
  • Many desktops I know went for about $600-$700 new, now sell for about $60-$80.  10%-15% of their value.
I find this shocking.  Truly shocking.  In fact, some Macs that are a year old, used, sell for RETAIL.  I saw a couple sell for above retail, but I jot that down to some fool who paid too much.

Perhaps what I find most shocking, is that I find it shocking! If the Mac is really so clearly better than a Windows or other machine, then it should be no wonder that Apple makes profit oh it's hardware, and that used equipment retains its value so well.

Take into account what I said above - the older Macs still function quite well in today's world (I recommend sticking with the Intel-based ones after 2006 - unless you really don't care, don't get a G4 or G5 Mac).  Am I an advocate for buying used equipment?  You bet.  Just beware, it often doesn't come with warranty, you can't get AppleCare on it unless you buy it from the Apple store (in which case they charge a bit more than the market, but less than a new machine).  If you are a tech geek, you can fix it yourself (and find out how on Google).

Many people complain about paying a premium for Macs as compared to PCs.  It is actually quite difficult to compare them, mostly because there are so many options.  However, the PC market has become a free-for-all of competition which has lowered prices and margins, while the Mac market has remained quite high.  However, Macs still have to compete - they are no longer in an island of "Mac enthusiasts" who are the only pool of customers.  Yet, when it comes to value, let's look at what it is you need a computer for, and what you value.  How do they stack up?
  1. Do you use it to do normal Internet stuff?  (Web surfing, e-mail, videos, file sharing, etc.)
    1. In general, Macs are much more secure.
      • There are a handful of viruses, which have affected a small portion of users, compared to PCs
      • Windows prompts you for a large variety of operations to try to take away opportunities for bad software ("malware") to take over your computer, and give you control over whether or not they can do it.  This is called UAC (User Access Control), it basically is the "Cancel or Allow" prompts Vista is infamous for introducing.  Users get desensitized to so many prompts and end up clicking Allow before reading them.  Mac has you type an administrator login only for specific actions that affect the system (software installs, changing configuration files).  It is very secure.  Software can't install without your express permission and password. In the newest OS X 10.8 Apple has introduced app signing by certification. If the app doesn't have a valid signed certificate, users can opt to not let it run.
    2. Macs are a lot more stable; the two pieces of individual software that crash the most in the computing world are Internet Explorer and Windows Explorer - two key central core components of Windows.  Even if you don't use them directly, they are core to Windows and you can't help using them as part of Windows-based software.
  2. Do you use it to manage multi-media?  (Photos, videos, music, audio files, etc.)
    1. As you guessed it, the Mac is a multimedia machine from the beginnings in 1984.  Windows is basically a kluge of hodge-podge patchwork of drivers, patches, updates, and features that have been assembled by Dr. Frankenstein and hopefully work together, given a framework (.NET Framework - a very buggy one to build software on).
  3. Do you expect the computer to make it easy to find your stuff?
    1. In Windows, you go to Windows Explorer.  How many of you know what that is?  Then, there is a search field in the upper right corner - type in a term, it finds things.  Kind of.  It's OK, much better than it used to be, but still leaves a lot to be desired.
    2. In Mac, you click the magnifying glass in the upper right corner of the screen - all screens - and type a search term.  It searches everything - e-mails, file names, file contents, picture and music attributes, databases, you name it - anything on your computer, and locates it instantly for you.
  4. Do you expect the system to take care of the basics?
    1. Disk Maintenance - computers use what is called a "file system" to organize how they store files on disks.  The Windows file system is NTFS, and as you can image, Windows NT was developed in the early 1990's, it really hasn't been updated since.  It is horrible at maintaining a healthy file system as it gets fragmented and slower over time; the Mac uses modern techniques to keep disks performing at their best (and reduces overall wear and tear on the hardware so it lasts longer).
    2. Backup and protect your work - Windows does come with a backup system, but frankly a) it is hard for the average guy to find, and b) it is really up to the user to figure out how to back up, when to back up, and where to back up.  The Mac has it built into the machine - an icon at the top of the screen indicates the status, it figures out what to back up and when (you can adjust), and where (it prompts you when you stick a blank drive in the USB slot, or you can set up a device on your network easily).  Restoring it restores everything you care about (see the above link).
  5. Making your everyday work easier
    1. Tons of features make the Mac a dream to use.  All of these listed here are lacking on Windows.
      • Multiple Desktops allow you to set up virtual screens that you can swipe between with a gesture, and you can arrange your windows on each screen.  If you have multiple monitors, you have multiple monitors per desktop, so you can really arrange your work if you have a lot open at once.
      • Back to where you were - when you log out, reboot, and log back in, the Mac restores everything the way you were when you left it - applications, documents opened, where the cursor was in the text file, etc.  It is all set back to where it was.
      • Locating, locking, and wiping a lost system - iCloud enables you to locate lost Apple equipment (including a Mac) if it is powered on the Internet, remotely lock, and optionally wipe it.  There is also a commercial app that when activated, simulates a hardware failure, so that if a thief takes it into an Apple store for service, it displays to the Apple service personnel a notice that it has been stolen and a request to notify the police.
      • Multi-finger gestures means you can scroll, swipe between screens, go back and forward among pages of a document or web history, and more without any buttons or clicks.
      • Dashboard gives you important widgets, hidden while you work, but available at a moment's notice.  Clock, calendar, reference materials, flight trackers - you name it, there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of widgets.  Windows has widgets, but they are not widely developed by programmers, so the choices are limited, and they clutter your one single desktop.
    2. Stability - things just work.  Printing, if there is an error in Windows it says "There was an error printing."  That's it.  Have you every tried to click "Troubleshoot?"  It always says that everything is working fine.  The need to constantly reboot to keep things working, happens on all computers, but on Windows most frequently.

The Mac does all of the same things a PC does, but better. Then you add performance and stability. It doesn't get slower over time. Backups are complete, simple, and automatic (buy a backup drive or device). Then take into account resale value. If you can expect to get 25 to 67% of the value 3 years later as opposed to 10%, what is really the better deal?

Friday, August 17, 2012

How does GMail do it?

Do you use GMail?  I have been using it for many years now.  When I first started out, I think they offered 2.5 GB of space.  When you look at the page (while not logged in), the number under "Lots of space" keeps going up.  Right now, I have 10GB of space (with about 1GB in use), after what, 8 years or so of use?

So that brings to mind the question, "How do they do it?"  How do they have ever-increasing space?  Ever since I first saw it, I envisioned people sitting in a data center dripping sweat while endlessly popping new disk drives into storage arrays.  "So, what do you do for work?"  "I install disk drives in GMail drive arrays."  "Oh....interesting."

According to Yahoo Answers (who knows more, Yahoo or Google?), there is some formula on quotas that adds more storage the longer you are a member.  However, when I log out, and Google "doesn't know who I am," it still shows 10GB now (2.5 GB when I first started).

However, this blog's roving reporters have uncovered the truth.  We expose it here, first.

What is really happening here?

As you may suspect, Google is making money off the free e-mail by placing "unobtrusive" contextual advertising on the right-hand-side.  (In plain English, GMail looks for key words in your e-mails as you read them, and displays relevant ads.)  So as an incentive to have eyes to broadcast to, they offer ever-increasing storage.  For advertisers, they bill per impression (or per 1,000 impressions), so the more impressions they make, the more money they make.  Enticing users to log in gives them a captive market - unless, of course, you are using a mail client and downloading the mail to your hard drive.  But then you don't get to take advantage of the ever-increasing storage available to you, nor the live cloud mail across web and devices (like my iPhone).

Using our advanced covert techniques and spy gear, we have uncovered a conspiracy between the mobile device providers (Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Blackberry, HTC, and others), and Google.  Enlisting the help of a highly advanced race of beings from a distant planet in the Horsehead Nebula, they have concocted a plan to take over the world one bit at a time (or one person at a time), and install Skynet to track and control each and every one of us.  Their long-term plan is for Skynet to start building robots that kill people, to clear the planet for them to move here.  Their home planet is tearing itself apart, but because of Earth's higher gravity, our race is stronger than them and has super powers compared to them, so they need to wipe us out first.

First they need money, lots of money.  As you can see this is backed by the biggest companies on the planet.  What's in it for them?  A cut.  The Forgned (the closest spelling of the alien race) have offered these companies a split of 10% of the profits - while retaining 90% for themselves.  Once they have accumulated enough wealth, they will be able to purchase enough industrial production to create a stable wormhole generator, warp to our planet, and take over the solar system.

We are 80% certain this is the case.  Either that, or we have been watching too much Stargate SG-1, Doctor Who, and Battlefield Earth.

Do the Earth a favor!  Don't use GMail web as your e-mail access!  Access GMail from your mobile device, or from a mail client on your computer!  This may be the only chance to save Earth from the impending alien invasion.  They are still years away from getting enough money, and building the gate.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What do you like about Microsoft?

I know, it's really easy to find a bunch of things you don't like about a thing - a product, a company, etc.  A company as big as Microsoft and who has been around as long has surely developed a reputation on both the plus and minus sides.  But, instead of ranting, let's talk about what we do like about it.  Feel free to chime in!
  1. Employed many people and contributed to the global and national economies.
  2. Very good at developing and enhancing user interfaces, especially graphics and icons.
  3. Spin-offs have benefited humanity, including spin-off businesses and charities (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Paul Allen, etc.)
  4. Very good at taking a product, identifying it as a marketing success, and investing in it (usually by buying it out)
Am I short on the "like" list?